Sally Painter joins Atlantic Council delegation at Baltic Forum in Latvia

June 2017

By Jeremiah J. Baronberg

When it comes to relations between Russia and the West, the debate over whether, and how, to engage with Russia has ebbed and flowed over the years.

While bilateral engagement between Russia and the West has occurred at the government level, and with varying degrees of success, perhaps less well-known have been nongovernmental "Track II" diplomatic efforts to open new channels to bridge the gap between Russia and the West by enabling opportunities for cooperative dialogue and increased understanding.

In the midst of rising tensions between Russia and the West, the annual Baltic Forum in Latvia has institutionalized this form of regular dialogue aimed at promoting trust between Latvia and its allies in the Baltic region together with attendees from Russia, the European Union, and the United States.

This year, high-level delegates from policy institutions, academia, media, the private sector, and government officials met together in Riga to discuss a range of topics, including security and economic issues such as nuclear arms reduction, combatting terrorism and narcotics trafficking, infrastructure development, relations in Asia, and the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, among others.

Sally Painter joined an official delegation this year sent by the U.S. Atlantic Council, led by former Member of Congress The Honorable Ellen Tauscher, Ambassador John Herbst, and Damon Wilson. Former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock and Igor Levitin, State Council Secretary of the Russian Federation and aide to President Putin also attended, adding a significant dimension and perspective to the gathering.

Without ignoring real differences among those in attendance and the countries they come from, the 2017 Baltic Forum was seen by many of its participants as a particularly unique opportunity to "cushion some of the current tensions" and to gain insight into the views of "the other side." Examples included contributing research and analysis from leading Russian analysts such as Igor Yurgens of the Institute of Contemporary Development, which offer an otherwise unseen window into such views.

While the discussions were not always easy and included a fair amount of controversy regarding the major issues, participants expressed optimism and appreciation for the open, honest, and frank dialogue afforded by the gathering to both tackle and call for effective management of the many critical issues, including differences, facing Russia and the West. 

The Baltic Form itself takes its inspiration from the famous Chautauqua Conferences on U.S.–Soviet Relations of the mid-1980s that were held in upstate New York and in Latvia, which enabled participants to engage in a more relaxed combination of "diplomacy by day and culture by night." The gatherings were credited with helping to relieve tensions and address such difficult issues as the nuclear arms race.